In Changing Economic Times, the Role of Wilton’s Econ. Dev. Commission Is Clarified

Wilton's call letters are prominent in the visual for the EDC's Instagram account, @wiltonedc

The subject of economic development in Wilton has become particularly salient in recent times, for a variety of reasons:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant economic disruption, especially in Wilton’s retail and restaurant sectors
  • Changing workforce dynamics and other factors have led to excessive under- or non-utilized commercial space in Wilton
  • The Town is undertaking a Master Planning process to strengthen Wilton Center as an economic hub, as well as a residential, recreational, and cultural center of Town

Just recently, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice has made economic development an even more salient topic, with:

Economic Development: A Shared Effort

In the Nov. 1 presentation to the BOS, Vanderslice began the discussion by taking the broadest view of economic development, starting with the first headline in the presentation.

“All board and commission members and employees have a role in ensuring Wilton remains an economically vibrant community equally attractive to businesses, residents and investors,” Vanderslice said.

In addition to “reasonable property taxes and fees,” Vanderslice highlighted “policies and customer service that support and facilitate economic development” as well as access to data and other resources that stakeholders need.

While all boards and commissions support ultimate economic development goals, Vanderslice said some play a more “active or prominent role” than others.

Primary Responsibility

Vanderslice asserted that individuals in two Town leadership positions hold the primary responsibility for economic development.

Director of Land Use Management and Town Planner Michael Wrinn and/or First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice are the go-to points of contacts,” according to Vanderslice’s presentation.

Vanderslice explained how she and Wrinn establish contact and maintain relationships with existing and prospective businesses; commercial property owners and brokers; and developers.

She cited several examples, including a recent meeting with a site selector for a national chain considering a location in Wilton.

Much of the execution of economic development efforts and programs comes through the First Selectwoman’s office, specifically through Community Affairs Coordinator Sarah Gioffre.

The community affairs coordinator partners with local and state organizations — such as AdvanceCT, the Connecticut Office of Tourism, the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, other town departments and civic groups, as well as realtors and business owners — all to promote Wilton.

Gioffre has, for example, developed the online Guide to Opening or Expanding a Business in Wilton, and planned a number of promotional events in Wilton Center, including the summer concerts at Schenck’s Island/Merwin Meadows and the Scarecrow Scavenger Hunt.

So Where Does The EDC Come in?

According to Vanderslice’s presentation to the BOS, “The appointed Economic Development Commission contributes towards Wilton being a vibrant business community” through marketing activities and as a resource to businesses.

One such marketing activity has been an effort to increase social media presence, a relatively new initiative being spearheaded by commissioner Alison Smith.

But since the pandemic began, and especially this year, the EDC has wrestled with strategic questions about its role, not only to promote businesses like shops and restaurants in Wilton but also how to position and market the town to attract new businesses.

Facing decisions such as whether to continue to maintain its own website, update promotional videos and a number of other potential tasks they described as “daunting,” commissioners have discussed a need for greater clarity on what their specific priorities should be, and whether greater focus might lead to more tangible results rather than diffusing their efforts.

Commissioners have questioned the scope of the EDC’s purview as recently as the commission’s Oct. 18 meeting, when confronted with an unexpected request for the EDC’s endorsement from the developer of 141 Danbury Rd

Vanderslice attended the EDC’s Nov. 10 meeting to give the EDC guidance on that question.

“It is definitely within the scope of the Economic Development Commission to comment on a project,” Vanderslice assured the commissioners.

However, she emphasized that making any type of endorsement or position statement would require investment in time and preparation on the part of the commission.

“If you’re going to comment on a project, there’s a couple of layers of preparation that you need to go through,” Vanderslice told the commissioners.

“The first one is understanding the Plan of Conservation and Development [POCD]… it’s the roadmap for the town.”

The second layer, Vanderslice went on to explain, involved “staying current” on the various potential development projects as they go through the process with the town.

Vanderslice noted that, under the circumstances, it was appropriate for the EDC to decline to comment on the application for 141 Danbury Rd.

“You were not in a position to comment on the [141 Danbury Rd.] application, because it’s not something that you’ve been engaged in actively,” Vanderslice said. “It’s within your scope, but the bottom line is it’s going to require preparation and involvement to be in a position to be able to comment.”

Vanderslice told the commissioners about previous projects in which the EDC chose to be involved and ultimately played a valuable role in bringing those projects to fruition.

The P&Z Angle

Rick Tomasetti, chair of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), also attended the Nov. 10 EDC meeting.

Tomasetti said he looks for the EDC to play an important role in the planning process, but less so when it comes to specific applications. Like Vanderslice, he pointed to the POCD as a critical reference for the EDC.

“There are several key, very distinct things that our Plan of Conservation and Development says that you should be doing to support the Planning and Zoning Commission, and a couple of items that you’re supposed to be doing of your own volition,” Tomasetti told the commissioners.

Tomasetti challenged the EDC to have greater vision and view itself as a thought leader.

“We want to be thought leaders. I want to challenge everybody to really come up with the ideas where other communities are going to adopt the ideas from our community,” Tomasetti said.

“I think all of our [boards] and commissions, from Board of Selectmen, Board of Ed, Board of Finance and all the way down, should be thinking creatively and visionary, to be leaders in what they do, because we’ll be a more vibrant community.”

EDC chair Prasad Iyer seemed to appreciate all of the guidance and suggestions from Vanderslice and Tomasetti.

“I’m glad we’re discussing all this, because there was a lot of back and forth as a commission,” Iyer said. “This is a great discussion. I feel like we have some clarity.”